For Joseph Landry, woodworking isn’t just a hobby. It’s a means of evangelization.

Joseph Landry, a parishioner at Mary Queen of Heaven Parish in West Allis, makes small, wooden crosses by hand and gives them away. He started in 1978 but has been winding down due to his age. (Submitted photos)

A large number of parishioners at Mary Queen of Heaven Parish in West Allis carry a small wooden cross in their pocket courtesy of Landry, a charter member at the parish. The same goes for members of his family, for friends of his, former colleagues and people he meets.

They’re small crosses, about an inch and a half, carved from maple wood, with the edges carefully filed down so that they don’t tear clothing. Though he’s been on a 10-year hiatus from active woodworking, Landry said he still has dozens and dozens of the crosses stored in medicine bottles and other small containers, ready to be passed out to anyone who wants one.

“People always say, ‘You got any crosses, Joe?’” he said. “I always tell people, when I give them a cross, ‘Put it in your pocket or wherever you want to put it. Every time you go in there to pull out your change and stuff, just say an Our Father.’ And it does work.”

It all started back in 1978 when Landry, who spent 30 years on the West Allis Fire Department, was patrolling State Fair and encountered a product demonstration that caught his eye. It was a scroll saw, and he couldn’t believe the intricate detail it was capable of creating in a previously rough slab of wood.

“That saw could do so much; I couldn’t believe it,” said Landry. “It took me a while even to get it operating. I’m not a person to make a lot of big stuff, I liked making little stuff. I was working in the basement one day and I thought well, ‘Why don’t I see if I can make some crosses?’”

A devout Catholic since his days as an altar boy, Landry went to daily Mass as often as his work schedule allowed. He taught himself to use the saw by making the small wooden crosses. As he improved, he graduated to creating other carvings out of oak, birch, pine and hardwood imported from Africa, but the crosses are a constant theme in his work, and they’ve become his pride and joy.

He can produce them in varying sizes and thicknesses using different wood, but the small maple ones are still his favorite, he said. And why? “Because I get to give them all away.”

“Most of his Christmas gifts are crosses that you can wear on a chain, and he brings a lot of them to me to bless so he can give them out,” said Fr. Thomas Vathappallil, administrator at the West Allis West Tri-parish to which Mary Queen of Heaven belongs.

“When he first started making the crosses, I got in my car one day and I had this little mini cross attached to my rearview mirror. I was like, ‘Where did that come from?’” said Mary Jo Drew, Landry’s daughter. “And then, in my house, I would go into the bathroom and I would see another little one stuck to the mirror, and it was kind of cute because it was the same thing with all my siblings. Dad was just putting these crosses around.”
It was Fr. Michael Merkt, the former pastor of Mary Queen of Heaven, that first suggested to Landry that he distribute crosses to his fellow parishioners.

“I showed him some of them — I must’ve had about 50 of them in a jar — and he looked at them and said, ‘Joe, let’s make these for the graduating class at school,’” he said. “I started that and then I just kept making them. I got to do it quicker, and I could make more at one time. Then Fr. Merkt said, ‘Let’s give them to everyone in church on Sunday.’ We passed them out at church after one of the Masses; I said just help yourself if you want one, and that’s where it all started.”

Armed with mounting putty that Landry provided them with, some parishioners even stuck the crosses to the mirrors of their car, he said.

Landry is still a daily attendee of Mass.

“That’s the best half-hour of my day,” he said.

“He spreads his positive energy to everyone who comes to church every day,” said Fr. Vathappallil of Landry.

“His faith is everything to him,” added his daughter.

And while he can’t use his saw the way he used to, he’s hopeful that he may find someone to — literally — take up his cross.

“He would love someone to take that over for him,” said Drew.

He feels certain that the faith the crosses help to inspire in the recipients has resulted in many graces in their lives.

“I had a friend of mine who I adopted; he calls me pop, and I call him son,” said Landry, who has suffered the loss of three of his eight children. “He came down with cancer, and he says that every time he went to the doctor, he had that cross in his pocket.”

The friend was actually holding the cross in his hand when he got his cancer diagnosis, as well as when he was told several months later that he was

Several of his friends who were gravely ill carried the crosses with them and lived much longer than they were estimated to, he said.

“I must’ve had maybe 10, 15 guys that lived a lot longer than they were predicted to live,” he said. “I take it that those little crosses are working.”